It does way more than make your bagel look Instagram-ready – the black stuff can ease indigestion, improve cholesterol, and, yes, soak up your flatulence…
What is it?
Activated charcoal is charcoal that’s been treated with oxygen to increase its porosity and surface area, and is the type usually found in supplements, foods and beauty products. It’s used medically to treat poisoning as drugs and toxins adsorb or bind to it, stopping them from being absorbed into the blood. However, it also has legions of fans for its beauty and health-boosting benefits, with some more well-researched than others.
Why the hype?
First came the medical usage, then came the hipster bagels! Because of activated charcoal’s ability to bind with toxins, the health world has been abuzz with different uses for it. From a natural way to filter water (it apparently removes the impurities) to a chemical-free way to whiten teeth (it helps to remove staining without negative abrasive effects), its new found-fame is also helped by its infinitely Instagrammable look when added to baking. Unlike so many other social media trends, this one has some scientific backing.
Yes, although more is needed. There was a flurry of research undertaken back in the 1980s; further follow-ups would strengthen the case for activated charcoal, but there’s still some interesting evidence:
A US study tested activated charcoal’s ability to filter the unpleasant odour created by people who had ingested a flatulence-inducing mix of pinto beans and lactulose (a non-absorbable sugar used in the treatment of constipation). The resulting ‘odour intensity’ was assessed after the gas was treated with activated charcoal, and it ‘removed virtually all odour’. In fact, it’s NHS-approved, with charcoal tablets described on the website as ‘a type of medication available over the counter from pharmacists. The charcoal absorbs gas in the digestive system, which helps reduce symptoms’. Meanwhile, in a 1981 study (it really was the decade of charcoal research!), scientists looked into the effectiveness of activated charcoal in treating intestinal gas. People were given a gas-producing meal, then activated charcoal capsules or a placebo. The charcoal ‘was effective in preventing the large increase in the number of flatus events’. Nice.
As well as absorbing toxins, activated charcoal can attach to cholesterol and bile acids in the intestine to stop them being absorbed. Reducing the absorption of those bile acids can increase cholesterol breakdown by the liver. A 1989 study that gave people differing doses of charcoal saw their total and LDL (bad) cholesterol levels fall by as much as 29 per cent and 41 per cent, respectively, and the ratio of good to bad cholesterol increased by as much as 121 per cent. Amongst patients with high cholesterol, taking 16g of activated charcoal saw their total cholesterol levels drop by 23 per cent and their LDL-cholesterol levels by 29 per cent. It’s old research so needs updating, but it’s promising.
The super-sponge that is activated charcoal may have an impact on bloating and digestion. One study looked at two population groups: one in the US and the other in India, with differing diets and therefore different gut flora. Activated charcoal significantly reduced symptoms such as bloating and abdominal cramps in both.
You need to be careful if you are taking other medications, like antidepressants or asthma medicines, amongst others, because the charcoal might adsorb or bind to the medication and make it less effective. Don’t mix charcoal with constipation medication either, or it can cause electrolyte imbalances. Ask your GP or pharmacist for advice*. Also be warned – and don’t panic – when charcoal turns both your stools and your tongue black!